or, Modern Life is Rubbish
Which one has it better, the lion in the wild or the lion at the zoo? On paper, there’s no question the lion at the zoo has it made. It’s sheltered from the elements. It has a team of veterinarians on hand in case it gets sick or injured or even if it just needs grooming. It doesn’t have to do any hunting for its food; it just waits around until zookeepers toss it a healthy, balanced meal. Everything it needs is taken care of.
So why don’t we just go out and capture every lion in the wild and put them all in zoos? Isn’t that the humane thing to do? Of course not. Everyone who has ever seen a nature documentary knows that however much the zoos have going for them on paper, lions aren’t supposed to live like that.
The lion in the wild is a majestic beast. The king of all he surveys, the ruthless killer who spreads terror to all creatures who spy her prowling in the tall grass of the savanna. The lions you see at the zoo are a sad echo of the ones you see being narrated by David Attenborough or Lorne Greene. Or whoever’s doing Nature on PBS these days. The zoo lions seem sad, or confused, or more than anything bored out of their magnificently maned heads.
Because life for the lion isn’t supposed to be unceasing ease and comfort. The life of a lion is supposed to be a struggle. It’s a feast of a gazelle that was brought down with your mighty paws, bringing to an end days or weeks of hunger and privation. It’s a life of fear, danger, triumph, sorrow, joy.
But the thing I’ve decided is that humans are living just as sterile and unnatural existence as zoo animals. Actually, I suspect our existence is way more sterile and unnatural than the zoo animals. It’s just that we don’t exactly have any nature shows that depict how humans are supposed to live.
I think people have an underlying instinct about these things. If you see a thirty-five year old guy living in his parents’ basement, mooching cigarette money off his girlfriend, and spending most of his waking hours playing video games, most people understand that, whatever else you want to say about his lifestyle, he is not living human existence to its fullest. Most people won’t say, “Well, gosh, he seems happy and he’s certainly well-fed and his stress levels are very low.” People just know that there’s more to life than that, in the same way that most people just know it isn’t right to capture all lions and put them in zoos, even if they can’t quite name any particular reason why not.
Granted, I might be wrong about all this. Since there’s no way to compare how we are to some hypothetical “how we should be”, it’s possible that modern life, when you balance its pros and cons, is really the optimal kind of living people could have. On the other hand, what we see today is a rampant increase in depression, neuroses, malaise, and people shuffling through life in an aimless struggle for meaning and identity.
This is why I don’t put too much stock into statistics about people’s quality of life. It’s all zoo animal statistics. Granted we’ve had undeniable technological progress that has made people’s lives better in some dimensions, but it seems most progress, certainly in the last 40 years, has either not improved people’s sense of purpose or wellbeing, or have actively made people’s lives less rich and fulfilling.
We have mobility, which we use to cut ties with friends and family and isolate ourselves. We have constant breakthroughs in medicine, most of which just ends up letting people suffer through the consequences of their overindulgent and sedentary lifestyles. We have all the entertainment you could want, most of which seems to be dedicated to numbing people from their existence.
And I think this is causing some serious pain for people. Everything about their life seems wonderful and yet they and everyone they know feel this deep emptiness inside. And since it doesn’t seem to have any particular cause, people’s minds search for something obvious that is wrong, which even if trivial is at least visible and tangible. But then this gets lampooned with the hastag #firstworldproblems, which is shorthand for “Your life is awesome; shut up and stop complaining.”
Granted there’s a lot to recommend modern life in the First World. Neolithic life, as far as we know, seems to have been fairly brutal. And a quick read-through of The Congo War, for instance, will make everyone count their blessings. (Low-end estimated deaths, 2.7 million, roughly the population of Nevada. This in a country 1/3 the size of the US.)
But I think it’s possible to be thankful for the good things in modern existence — indoor plumbing seems pretty cool and I do like that the threat of genocide is fairly trivial — while still acknowledging that what we have instead is sterile and unnatural. We aren’t supposed to be living like this.